To what extent is a prophet of God allowed to improvise? In order to better appreciate the issue and its consequences, I want to explore one case of Moshe’s apparent improvisation in this week’s parsha. I am referring to Moshe’s decision to include meat (16:8 – see Malbim here and Netziv) into what God would provide for the Jews in response to their complaints about hunger. At this point God had only told him that he would provide bread from the heavens (16:4). It is apparently only after Moshe introduces a promise for meat that God adds it to their menu (16:11).
Moshe’s impetus is clear: When complaining about hunger, the Jews mentioned both bread and meat (16:3). Nevertheless, it is clear that the main concern is about bread, which they indicate is what actually provides them sustenance. And so – as several commentators points out – God responds to their main and essentially appropriate complaint, but not to what is extra, especially since they had the animals to slaughter if they really wanted to eat meat.
So what led Moshe to add to God’s promise? R. Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio picks up on a small nuance that may provide the answer: He notices that Moshe makes two statements to the Jewish people about God’s promise here, the first in verses 6-7, and the second in verses 8-9. Not only is this marked by a new introductory phrase in verse 8 (“and Moshe said”), it is also marked by a parsha break between verses 7 and 8. According to him, this is an indication that the Jewish people were not satisfied with Moshe’s initial response. Hence Moshe felt he had to come back with something better.
Moshe may well have been justified in trying to find a way to assuage the people in this way: At this point, God had not shown any anger about their request and simply provided an answer that was meant to simultaneously give them what to eat and reinforce their faith (as well as making it clear that leaving Egypt was His idea and not just Moshe’s) – miraculous daily bread. Moshe simply went one step further and decided to fulfill the second and more tangential part of their complaint.
The question a reader might ask, however, is why Moshe doesn’t first consult with God. If the Jews were not satisfied, Moshe could have turned back to God as he had earlier in his career (at the end of Par shat Shemot), to tell God that it wasn’t working out. But if we remember back to that earlier scene – though God didn’t get angry at Moshe, neither does He tell him anything substantively new. In other words, a more experienced leader would be expected to just keep going and not bother God with his own personal frustrations. As many a boss has told an insecure and hesitant employee, God’s response essentially amounted to, “Just get it done!” Moreover, an experienced leader would know that sometimes there is simply no time or opportunity to ask God for what to do. And so God echoes Moshe here and includes quail in the new directive, seemingly agreeing to Moshe’s course of action.
In short, what we see is a more experienced Moshe deciding how to just get God’s plan done. Accordingly, Moshe may have felt that the Jews could use a little help in getting to the point where all they would ask for is for the miracle bread that would supply all of their physical hunger in this most sublime way. Indeed, many commentators suggest that as opposed to the manna which would continue with the Jews until they reached the Land of Israel, the supply of quail here was only very temporary. That would make sense if it was meant as a stop-gap to get the Jews used to their situation and then quickly be done away with, once that was accomplished.
In other words, this may be Moshe’s first independent defense of the Jewish people. As opposed to later cases, when it is a question of sparing them the consequences of their outright sins, Moshe was only asking God to let them adapt more gradually to the new spiritual level expected of them, rather than imposing it cold turkey. But the basic idea is the same – when the Jews fail to live up to God’s plan A, Moshe argues for the sustainability of a plan B. (The Jews’ failure here being expressed by their lack of response to Moshe’s first statement.)
As we continue reading the Torah, it appears that Moshe’s independent action is not coincidental but an important part of the program of religious leadership. And that leadership may not only be confined to leading others, but may have its primarily role in leading ourselves: The correct religious response to the vast majority of situations that we encounter is already spelled out in the vast corpus of halacha. But there are times when it is not. In those cases, God is presumably telling us, “Just get it done.”